Colonel Eileen Collins knew from a young age she wanted to be a pilot and an astronaut and was able to achieve these goals and more. Graduating from the U.S. Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training at Vance Air Force Base in 1979, she remained there as a T-38 instructor pilot for three years.
Transferring to Travis Air Force Base she was an instructor pilot and C-141 aircraft commander. Moving again in 1986 she was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy as an assistant professor in mathematics and a T-41 instructor pilot. During the time she was training to be an Air Force Test Pilot and she was selected for the astronaut program, officially becoming an astronaut in 1991.
The launch of the shuttle Discovery in February of 1995 was historic as it was the first flight of the new joint Russian-American Space Program but it was also the first time a woman had piloted the space shuttle.
With Collins at the helm the shuttle rendezvoused with the Russian Space Station Mir, deployed, and retrieved an astronomy satellite. Piloting a second mission to space in 1997 aboard the shuttle Atlantis, Collins docked the Atlantis with the Mir space station, this time to transfer supplies and equipment.
On the shuttle mission in 1999 to deploy the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, Collins made history again, this time as the first woman to fill the role of Space Shuttle Commander. After the tragic loss of the shuttle Columbia in 2003, NASA didn’t launch another shuttle until the Return to Flight mission in 2005. Collins was the commander of this flight which docked with the International Space Station.
The crew tested and evaluated new procedures for flight safety and shuttle inspection and repair techniques. Part of these inspections included Collins piloting the space shuttle through a complete 360-degree pitch maneuver to check for damage. When the shuttle safely returned to Earth Collins had spent over 870 hours in space. Logging over 6,751 hours in 30 different types of aircraft, Collins retired in 2005 in order to spend more time with her family and pursue other interests.
Written by Angela Goad